Beasts of Burden & The Morrissey Internment Camp

July 14th, 2020 3 Minutes
Morrissey Internment Camp, C.1914-18

The arrival of the First World War brought with it the internment camps. Immigrants, classified as “enemy aliens”, typically single and unemployed men of Austro-Hungarian and German descent, were arrested and detained at one of the 24 camps established throughout Canada. One such camp was located in Morrissey B.C.

War as always, engendered an environment of fear and uncertainty that exacerbated the extant hostilities towards Germans, and Austro-Hungarians – Sarah Beaulieu (Archeologist)

In all roughly 10,000 individuals were stripped of their freedom, civil liberties and imprisoned during the years of 1914 to 1920. Of that number, 81 prisoners were female, and 156 were children.

Though placed under the Austro-Hungarian umbrella, the internees consisted of Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Serbs, Czechs, and Croats. The people as a whole were labeled as Galicians.

The Austro-Hungarians were likened to “beasts of burden” by the Federal Minister of the Interior and slated for work in labour camps. Their German counterparts were sent to confinement camps based on the common assumption of their level of education, intelligence, and military prowess.

Government officials created Morrissey to shield communities province-wide from the responsibility of providing welfare to enemy aliens and to prevent them from joining the war effort. The camp was built as a permanent solution for the internees who had been temporarily housed at the Fernie Skating Rink, after the provincial government rented the facility in June of 1915. Morrissey operated for a few years and closed its doors on Oct. 27, 1918.

Many of the 300 detainees had lived in the local community since 1897, and in the mines, had worked side by side for many years with those who supported their internment – Beaulieu

Morrissey ( a ghost town) was chosen for its abandoned facilities that were owned by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (CNPCC). The suggestion for the camp was made on behalf of the Conservative Association an organization that represented local merchants.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Mackay oversaw the solicitation of endorsements from the mayor, community-stakeholders and members of the CNPCC, leading to the conversion of what had been a coal-mining town from 1902-1904 to keeper of the Morrissey Internment Camp on Sep. 28, 1915.

Conditions in Morrissey were less than ideal. Internees reported abuse by camp police, substandard food, improper healthcare (tuberculosis and the Spanish flu were epidemics at the time), harsh punishments (solitary confinement or the black hole), and intolerable conditions in the winter.

Records demonstrate that prisoners were beaten without reason and though court records note blatant evidence of violence, the guards were invariably acquitted – Beaulieu

Escape attempts were a frequent occurrence at the camp. A forty-five foot tunnel was uncovered by camp police under the prisoners’ quarters, disrupting one of the most infamous jailbreaks known to Morrissey.

Descriptions of how POW’s were hunted when attempting to escape are a disturbing reminder of the slight regard given to POW’s – Beaulieu

Camp life included the hostel-like setting of the Morrissey Hotel, also known as the Big Building, and later the Slav Compound. It was reportedly clean and utilitarian, offering a reading and recreation room, along with the usual amenities associated with basic living.

Work consisted of hard labour often 12 hours a day. The prisoners were exploited for the low cost of their wages while they worked on massive projects including mining, logging, and roadwork. They were paid a sum of $0.25 a day.

For entertainment prisoners enjoyed craftsmanship and many of them demonstrated superb talent and skill in their wood carvings. They opened a night school with the support of the YMCA and taught several subjects to the prisoner-guard community within the camp.

As is common in prisoner of war camps or any institutional confinement for that matter, mental escape is a necessary antidote to barbed wire disease – Beaulieu

Insanity and untimely death were common themes among the camps and Morrissey was no different. The Morrissey Cemetary houses several marked and unmarked graves that resulted during its operation from Sep. 28, 1915 to Oct.21, 1918.

The Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund was created to acknowledge the individuals that had their civil and human rights terminated by the War Measures Act and the inter-generational trauma that resulted from life within its walls.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *